Wednesday, January 05, 2005

James Alcock on Electronic Voice Phenomena

Dr. James E. Alcock PhD., a professor of Psychology at Glendon College, York University in Toronto Canada and full time skeptic has many interesting views on EVP and some possible natural explanations. While I don't see any of his arguments as proof that EVP does not exist, he does bring up some valid points that anyone studying this phenomenon needs to think about. Dr. James Alcock on EVP

1- Cross Modulation as a cause. A common phenomenon where recorders simply pick up stray radio waves. Our planet is covered by transmissions on almost all known radio bands and many devices have been known to pick up these signals including Alcock's own record player in the 60's.

This is always a possibility and probably explains away many 'spirit voice' recordings. Alcock complains that early EVP researcher "Raudive dismissed this possibility, saying that it cannot be radio since one never hears music or other obvious elements of radio transmission."

Unfortunately I have to point out the various experiments conducted in the early 70's and later in the 80's that concluded radio waves could not have caused the voices they recorded and serious researchers can quickly debunk recordings that include any obvious radio intercepts. If the cause was cross modulation that would not explain why many of these voices respond directly to questions with appropriate answers.

2- Apophenia- Alcock describes it as
"a common perceptual phenomenon whereby we spontaneously perceive connections and find meaningfulness in unrelated things. In other words, it involves seeing or hearing patterns where in reality, none exist. A visual example is the Rorschach Inkblot test. A common example of apophenia occurs when people are in the shower, and mistakenly think that they hear their door bell or telephone ringing. The white noise produced by the shower contains a broad spectrum of sounds, including those that make up ringing bells. The ear picks out certain sounds from the spectrum, and we detect a pattern corresponding roughly to a bell."
This is a fascinating point and one I had wondered about. In testing some of the EVP I've been listening to, I would ask friends to listen to the recording and tell me what they heard. Often they were unable to distinguish a voice until they read what was supposedly said and then it became clear to them. Apophenia would explain why the voices can answer questions.

Alcock explains it like this:
"We are told that tape recordings made with no one around contain mysterious voices. This sets up a mental set that motivates us to try to discern voices. That is, we must presume that there may be something there, or we would not waste our time in listening. If others have told us what the voices seem to say, this expectancy influences our auditory perception, so that our brains match up bits of random noise to the words that we expect to hear.

Of course, if we play the same piece of tape over and over, as is explicitly recommended by some of the web sites cited earlier, and if we do everything we can to focus our attention on the "noise" (perhaps by listening through headphones, again as recommended by the web sites), then we not only increase the likelihood of discerning voices if they really are there, but we maximize the opportunity for the perceptual apparatus in our brain to "construct" voices that do not exist, to detect patterns that match up with our expectations.

Then, once we "hear" the voices, then it is easy, given the mental set that is usually involved, to attribute them to deceased individuals. This interpretation is likely to produce an impressive emotional reaction, and since we have now heard what we set out to hear (our expectancy is fulfilled) our belief in the reality of the voices of the dead grows, and this may be rewarding in various ways. Such an outcome is likely to heighten the expectation that we will hear more voices the next time we listen to such tapes. "
Of course, using headphones and listening over and over is standard practice for anyone searching for faint recorded sounds, including law enforcement and professional recording engineers. This is good evidence gathering, not something some crazy people with a website made up. Not to mention there are those rare few samples that any listener could easily agree on; the ones that sound as if someone was actually standing right in front of the microphone. Alcock responds
"First of all, of course, the extraneous voices, if really there, could be the result of intended or unintended background interruptions by real people the recordings were not made under any sort of controlled conditions. Secondly, it is fascinating just how easy it is for our brains to come to interpret certain noise patterns as words, once we know what the words are supposed to be."

My problem with this argument is two fold.

One, he is grasping at straws when he states that it "could be" background noise. Well, yes it could, but it could also be voices from the dead as supporters claim. There is no firm proof that spirits do not exist or that they do. He complains that many recordings were not made in controlled environments and I have to join him in this while also pointing to the many that were. "Could be" isn't going to cut it from skeptics and neither are sloppy collection methods from researchers.

My second problem is the way he describes perception:
"Perception is a very complex process, and when our brains try to find patterns, they are guided in part by what we expect to hear. If you are trying to hear your friend while conversing in a noisy room, your brain automatically takes snippets of sound and compares them against possible corresponding words, and guided by context, we can often "hear" more clearly than the sound patterns reaching our ears could account for. Indeed, it is relatively easy to demonstrate in a psychology laboratory that people can readily come to hear "clearly" even very muffled voices, so long as they have a printed version in front of them that tells them what words are being spoken.

The brain puts together the visual cue and the auditory input, and we actually "hear" what we are informed is being said, even though without that information, we could discern nothing. Going one step further, and we can demonstrate that people can clearly "hear" voices and words not just in the context of muddled voices, but in a pattern of white noise, a pattern in which there are no voices or words at all.

Given that we can routinely demonstrate this effect, it is only parsimonious to suggest that what people hear with EVP is also the product of their own brains, and their expectations, rather than the voices of the dearly departed.

Well, yes, and no. Isn't that what hearing and speech recognition is all about? My brain gets some input from my ears after they receive sound waves and then my brain runs through the huge database in my head to discern what these sounds are and who may have made them? I understand the point that often our brains are incorrect in their assessments, but if many brains all agree, then isn't it possible there is something really there? Isn't that basically the definition of how we agree on what is real and true in the first place?

Basically he is asking me to believe that when I hear a recording of any type, particularly that of noise, the possibility exists for me to hear things that were not originally recorded. I have to agree with that as a possibility but I would argue that saying it's all in my head when everyone in a room full of people can hear the same voice just does not convince me.

If most people hear a voice, even one they do not understand, we can usually agree there is a person saying something. Take listening to a muffled CD as an example: Just because I may hear a particular phrase that you may not does not mean that the Rolling Stones don't actually exist anywhere except in my head. If we all listen to a song we may hear different lyrics being sung, but the artist still said whatever they said and everyone can usually agree that something was said by somebody.

Some of the EVP recordings I've heard are too clear to be interference or all in my head. There is a sound there. I've even listened to some without reading the included text just to see if I heard the voice or it was in my mind. I heard voices. My computer software shows me voices in a visual way. I can see the waveforms and know there is a sound there. How can that all be explained by Apophenia or my faulty perceptions of reality?

It can't be explained. That's why it's been dubbed a paranormal phenomenon. That's why it deserves more serious study. That's why skeptics and believers alike should look for answers together and debate the issues to boil everything down to the truth.

But self named skeptics are rarely in search of the truth, no matter how much they say that is what they hold most dear. Alcock concludes with advice to his fellow members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:
"How can someone who has heard the voices be persuaded to be more critical and to examine more mundane possibilities?

A rational, deliberative discussion is rarely helpful because clear evidence or logic is not involved. Believers are reporting an experience that was highly meaningful and perhaps highly emotional to them not something that is easily challenged by logic. Moreover, there is a self-selection of people predisposed to believe the voices are compatible with their belief system."
Dr. Alcock, the same can be said of most skeptics too.

After stating "we must rely on science as the avenue to truth rather than personal experience or other people's anecdotal reports. Science, with its reliance on data and its insistence on looking for sources of error and for alternative explanations, provides the best method that humans have produced for protecting against error and self-delusion", the good Dr. claims "Electronic Voice Phenomena are the products of hope and expectation; the claims wither away under the light of scientific scrutiny."

But all I see here are theories and "could be". I find it disappointing to have no quoted research whatsoever by this committee for scientific investigation. Where is the investigating? Show me the data when you "routinely demonstrate this effect" of apophenia in your lab using EVP examples. Show me the data proving any sample is actually a stray radio broadcast. Show me one single experiment your committee has done to prove your theories correct.

I'll end with a quote from the good Dr. Alcock which I wholeheartedly agree with:
"There is a lesson in this for all of us, for we just as surely may be mistaken in some of our own deeply held convictions."

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